Sexual harassment starts in school, and boy do we know it

I was horny in high school. Like many adolescent humans, sex ricocheted through my body like a summer storm.

If you’ve read any of my writing, however, you will not be even remotely surprised to know that my outspoken feminism and ability to scan Shakespearean meter did not bring the boys to the yard. And if you existed in Republican America in the aughts you will also not be surprised to hear that there were very few out queers. No date invitations, no making out behind the bleachers: at sixteen, not being considered sexually attractive was its own form of Hades.

I was also cast as the seductress in about six high school plays.

I was the sexy one — the woman who slunk and commanded, who sang and smoldered, who whispered dirty nothings. I had gotten tall and my breasts had come in early, and there was something about my walk and my posture that seemed destined to scandalize my friends’ fathers. 

Now imagine how this shit can interact with a sex-starved sixteen-year-old’s brain: a nonentity in the preteen pecking order, on stage I was the sex pot of the scene. I learned to pose with one hip jutted out in doorways, to cast come-hither glances, and made out far more onstage than I ever did off it. 

While the slinky walk came more or less naturally (those hips were just waiting to swing), my high school drama teachers also offered some tutoring. Mostly men in their late twenties, they  coached me on how to walk and sit and deliver my lines with a seductive simper, drilling me as I donned blistery high heels to walk up and down the high school hallways.

I still feel this instruction in my body language when I flirt. 

There came a threshold when male teachers’ comments left the realm of theater and entered the classroom. Comments that both rewarded and critiqued my sexuality. That filled me with the mixture of queasy flattery and violation I, like many women, have felt about a million times. 

I was told that I seemed like a grown woman, too mature for the high school halls — and also asked, with eyes incredulously narrowed, if I had really never had a boyfriend. I was told I looked like a hussy. When I shared a strong opinion (and looking back on this one now I’m like what the actual fuck was this guy thinking?) I was told that men had better watch out or I would gobble them up with my…

I think he stopped short of saying vagina, but it wasn’t too hard to fill in the blanks.

After rehearsing a particularly saucy scene alone with a male teacher in the band room — feeling embarrassed as I performed for him, slinking and pawing, unsure of where to look—he looked me in the face. “Do it again,” he said. “But this time, look at me like you’d look at a man you were playing with under a table.”

A high school administrator caught wind of my new role, and typical of our Family Values community, expressed shamey concern for my immortal soul and reputation: “She’s started walking down the halls swinging her hips like she is having sex,” she reportedly commented, as though sexual activity could be read by the gait. At the time, firmly inculcated with the pretty standard message that my sexual attractiveness determined my worth, the comments prompted a strange and intoxicating mix of excitement (older men!) and terror (talking about my vagina!).

In retrospect, asking a teenager you have a supervisory capacity over to imagine giving you a hand job (or maybe a foot job, I don’t known the dimensions of the imaginary table) is pretty obvious sexual harassment.

As the cultural reckoning about sexual harassment in workplaces, educational institutions, Hollywood, and oh yeah, literally everywhere, has unfolded over the past few months, I’ve been thinking a lot about the weird, uncomfortable mix of gratification and humiliation that we are taught to associate with our sexualities. The double standard that says sexual harassment complaints make too big a deal about something that is “just a compliment,” but that labels us sluts when we accept wanted sexual overtures. How unwanted sexual attention wears us down. But how often, we’re taught to judge our worth by our sex appeal to such an extent we lose our connection to our own sense of what is and isn’t wanted.

Recently, I looked back at those photos of me in high school, silhouetted in the haloes of the low-budget stage lights.

And you know what? At seventeen, I was sexy. It wasn’t just my pouty lips and my hopeful, long-limbed body. It was a kind of ribald confidence, a shamelessness that bordered on exhibitionism. Seeing those pictures, I thought of that comment — men better be careful or you’ll gobble them up with your...

In a young woman, appetite is threatening. Agency is threatening. It’s threatening to men to see a sexuality which they cannot consume. The misogynist justification for sexual harassment is often just this repetition of a male inability to imagine women being beautiful, or interesting, or talented in a way that is not at all directed toward them.

High school girls are told to dress modestly because their bodies are “distracting.” They are frequently harassed or assaulted by peers and teachers. In college and graduate school, women are often at the mercy of harassment from the gatekeepers to our academic and professional success: professors, advisers, administrators, dudes who have written famous postcolonial studies manuscripts. If we speak up we are threatened with the diminishment of our educational and professional opportunities. This is a way to control not only our bodies, but our potential.

And they get us young.

Feministing writers past and present keep coming back to a question that’s often on my mind, too. Which is: Who would we be if we lived in a world without pervasive sexual violence?

Imagine the kind of effortless ownership we could feel if we grew up with the right to enjoy our sexualities, in environments that didn’t reduce us to them. If we were able to stride and sing down the high school hallways swinging our hips like we knew all the secrets worth knowing.

As sexually frustrated as I was in high school, I also had an impetuous energy that I envy in retrospect, a kind of raw and reckless desire dulled now by intervening years of misogynistic crap. The fight against sexual violence is not just about political and economic equality, professional advancement, and access to public space. It’s also about that. That feeling of being at home in our bodies, that bold and impetuous pleasure in our own flesh, which systemic sexism robs from us. 

Because despite all the sexist bullshit, I remember how good it felt to be seventeen and sexual. Waving my arms onstage, something burning inside of me. Like I was a bird straining against gravity. Like my legs were wings and if I could just spread them, I’d take off flying.

Cover photo: High school—it’s like High School Musical, but with sexual harassment. 

Reina Gattuso is passionate about empowering conversations around queerness, sexual ethics, and social movements with equal parts rhapsody and sass. Her writing has appeared at Time, Bitch, attn:, and The Washington Post. She is currently pursuing her masters.

Reina Gattuso writes about her sex life for the good of human kind.

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